On the surface, a convicted felon working for Wilson County as a youth services officer may seem somewhat controversial, unethical or possibly even illegal.
But for Gary Vandever and general sessions Judge Barry Tatum who hired him, it’s a perfect fit.
“I gave it a good deal of thought and a good bit of prayer,” Tatum said about hiring Vandever. “Some of the best alcohol or drug counselors were users in the past. The positives certainly outweigh the negatives in this case.
“We did our due diligence and found it was legal. We got a good individual. Gary hit a low point in his life due to some bad decisions. He’s a good, decent fellow. I think anyone who knows him or has worked with him over the years will tell you the same thing.”
On July 18, 2012, Vandever, a former attorney, pleaded guilty for misappropriating funds that totaled about $500,000, from the estates of his deceased clients, father and son, Paul Porter Sr. and Joe Porter.
The case made headlines in 2010 when the crimes came to light and Vandever reportedly threatened to commit suicide.
Vandever was sentenced to nine months in jail and placed on probation for nine years. He pleaded guilty to three Class B felonies for thefts from the estates and immediately began his incarceration, to which he said he served every day. Vandever was also ordered to pay $400 a month in restitution until the entire amount taken is repaid, and he lost his license to practice law.
Vandever served his sentence at the Trousdale County Jail.
When he was released in April 2013, Vandever said it took him until September to get a job. He worked as the manager at Valley Growers Garden Center until Tatum hired him to be a youth services officer in April.
“We posted the job, and he applied for it,” Tatum said. “There were several applications. With his experience and knowledge of the law, he was the best qualified for the position.
“The big issue was whether it was legal and whether he would fit well. We checked with the state and found no issue with it. If anything, as well as he’s worked out, I wish I would have had him sooner.”
Before becoming an attorney, Vandever said he worked as a state probation officer from 1973-79 and interned as a youth probation officer while at Middle Tennessee State University prior to that.
“When I came out of jail, I didn’t have a job and didn’t work,” Vandever said. “When I disclosed what I had done, I essentially closed my law office that day. This job came along just about a year after I was released from Trousdale County. I probably had close to 100 applications in at various agencies. I had close to 40 years experience and a college degree. If it was that hard on me, think how hard it would be for someone coming out of jail with a felony conviction and no high school diploma. I bring a lot of experience as a probation officer and as a defense attorney.
“I appreciate the job, but I feel like I am very qualified for it. I was able to step in and do the job on day one. People don’t realize how difficult it is for someone with a felony conviction to get a job.”
Tatum said a youth services officer serves as the first point of contact for any youth who enters the criminal court system for a delinquent offense, such as truancy or alcohol- or drug-related crimes.
“They do the intake and schedule the case on the docket,” Tatum said. “Part of it is counseling. They make referrals to therapists and substance abuse facilities and schedule tours of the jail or a juvenile detention center. It’s not an easy job.”
Tatum said the position doesn’t involve the handling of any funds, and there’s no use of a firearm, which felons are not allowed to own or carry.
“Being a convicted felon, he wouldn’t be able to be an armed individual, but there’s no need for him to be armed as a youth service officer,” Tatum said. “It wasn’t a violent crime. We’ve had some long talks about that in the past. Gary was very remorseful of that when it was a very low time in in his life.
“It would have been very easy to cast him away in life. What we do in the court system is give people the opportunity to redeem themselves. This is an opportunity for him. The New Testament teaches all people make mistakes. He made a mistake, and he paid for it. He lost his home, and he lost a lot.”
And Vandever admitted the position is tough some days, but it’s also something he enjoys doing.
“The most difficult part of it is to sit here in the office and have parents or guardians say they don’t want this child anymore,” he said. “It’s got to be difficult on the child to hear they are not wanted anymore.
“You can tell an adult to do something. They have the ability to do that. In dealing with children, you can’t necessarily do that because they have to rely on a parent to take them. A kid can’t do it on his or her own. You have to have the cooperation of the family to do anything.”
There are some requirements Vandever still has to meet to keep is probation status in good standing. But he said he’s doing that.
“Initially when I came out, I had to physically meet with a probation officer once a month,” Vandever said. “After a year, I have been put on a program where I call in every month and I walk my check up to the clerk’s office on the first of each month.”
And Tatum agreed.
“He has a great deal of work ethic and ability,” Tatum said. “The attorneys in the court system have said it was a good move.
“He’s there every morning at 7:30 a.m. and stays late. He’s come up with some good ideas.
“He’s got to maintain the conditions of probation, and we checked, and he’s compliant. He meets with a probation officer regularly.”
Vandever said he even serves as an example to the children he encounters, especially when he gets the chance to counsel them.
“I have been there, and I understand what these kids are potentially facing if they continue the route they are going,” he said. “And I know the charges and convictions can be devastating.”
Vandever said he’s also reached out to the Next Step Resource Center, which helps people recently released from jail and prison start a new life. He said he wants to start volunteering there when he can.